Monday, August 30, 1999

Week of 08/30/1999

Target: Moralism - Part 2
The "Tin Drum" case
- by David Matthews 2

"The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic." - H.L. Mencken

In 1997 a band of pathetically hypersensitive moralists in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, went to the city’s district attorney’s office and demanded a movie be deemed obscene. The movie in question was the 1978 German film "The Tin Drum" - which got an academy award for best foreign film. The film was about a man who could not physically age beyond that of a child, and who could only protest the actions of Nazi Germany by shouting and banging on a tin drum. The moralists however got upset at a scene where the character supposedly was intimate with a woman.. even though nothing even remotely explicit was shown, only inferred.

So the district attorney took this one scene to a local judge, who - without reviewing the rest of the movie - deemed the movie itself to be obscene. Mind you, the legal definition about obscenity demands that the material in question has to be taken IN ITS ENTIRITY! You would think that a judge would know that, right?

But armed with this clueless judge’s declaration of obscenity, the moralists then had the police storm the video stores, seizing any and all copies of the video. Then they went further. They intimidated the video store managers into surrendering the list of people who rented the movie, then the police stormed their houses, threatening and intimidating people into surrendering those videos.

So you think moralists won? Well… not entirely.

You see, one of those people whom the police acted like the Nazi stormtroopers in the movie towards was Michael Camfield, who was also a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. He appealed the judge’s ruling that the movie was obscene, and a federal judge ruled that the local judge was wrong.

Furthermore, the judge ruled that the OKC police - in their zeal to appease the self-centered interests of the dysfunctional elite - violated a federal law that says that information about video rentals is private and can not be surrendered without a specific court order. And indeed a jury in Oklahoma City has ruled that three members of the city’s finest did violate the Federal Video Privacy Act. (The law, ironically, was written after the confirmation hearings of John Tower, when Democrats were able to go through his video rentals as an excuse to block his being named Secretary of Defense.)

Case closed? Justice served? Not yet, and probably not ever, because there is one group of people who are getting away with a heinous crime - and that’s the moralists who started this in the first place! The so-called "Oklahomans for Children And Families" who pushed for this anti-American censorship will be walking away from this mess without one shred of retribution!

Let’s get brutally honest here… That’s why moralists are so dangerous to America - because they are considered to be untouchable! Moralist groups can go to any prosecutor or police chief and demand their will be done, and usually if they have enough political stroke, they can do it. But when the action is clearly in the wrong, the people responsible for starting the trouble escape any kind of justice.

Now let’s say you are one of the video store owners in Oklahoma City whom were visited up on by the police. The police have stormed your business, seized your property, and threatened and intimidated you into giving up your list of renters so they can be equally threatened and intimidated, and possibly even arrested. No doubt this whole fiasco was done in the presence of the local media, because both the police and the moralists LOVE to have their handiwork show up on the 6 o’clock news. And even if they don’t make the nightly news, no doubt the morning papers will have the store names and street addresses listed. That’s not good for your business.

Now, all of a sudden, a federal judge says the police made a mistake. They shouldn’t have stormed your business, seized your property, intimidated you into giving up your renters, and drag your name in front of the press like a child molester. Just a mistake. Sorry! No hard feelings, right?

Who do you go after for justice? You can sue the police and the city, but all you’ll get if you’re lucky is monetary damages. The police officers themselves can’t be touched. They claim all they were doing was following orders. The district attorney who pushed the effort to the judge and to the police can’t be touched. He or she was only following a complaint by "the public." The judge who initially ruled the material obscene can’t be touched because he was simply "doing his job." Each of these groups claim this outdated legal notion of "sovereign immunity." It’s not their fault, they’re just doing the work of "the people."

And the moralists? Well you certainly can’t touch them because they weren’t the ones who told the police to storm the video stores and to harass you. All they did was "file a complaint."

So what do you do? You’ve got your name wrongly dragged through the mud. People don’t want rent videos from you for fear that their choice could mean a visit by the police. You don’t even know if your property (the videos) can be returned, and usually the only way it can be is if you file a lawsuit, which means more money lost to attorneys. You could very well lose your business over this. Meanwhile, the police officers responsible still have their jobs and their pensions. The DA still has his or her job and pension. The judge still has his job and pension. And the moralists responsible go about their lives absolutely guilt-free!

Let’s face it, there is no justice here. The true villains in this case - Oklahomans for Children and Families - walk away unscathed with their money, their freedom, and their self-righteous indignation intact.

And people wonder just what happened to the notion of personal responsibility?

There is an easy fix to this - eliminate the sovereign immunity defense. Agents of the government (that includes the police, prosecutors, and judges) make decisions that affect the lives and freedoms of individuals. As long as the government can claim they are only doing what the will of "the people" dictate - as they do now - then only the most blatant and egregious cases of abuse of power by government is prosecuted. Agents of government should be held to the same kind of responsibility as those they claim to govern.

What do you think would have happened in Oklahoma City if the notion of sovereign immunity was removed? Well, for starters, the district attorney’s office probably would have been a little more cautious about hearing a complaint about a film like "The Tin Drum." The judge who ruled the movie obscene probably would have taken a little more time to review the federal standard of obscenity and taken the film in its entirety instead of just judging that one questionable segment. And the police probably would not have made a big production out of going after the video stores and public libraries, never mind violating a federal law to go after video renters in their homes. Each of them would know that if they were wrong, they themselves would have to face some kind of retribution, either in civil court or possibly in criminal court.

It would also hinder a very powerful weapon the moralists are able to exploit on a regular basis. If the "Oklahomans for Children and Families" tried to get rid of "The Tin Drum" themselves, they could be sued, forcing them to lose money, property, and possibly even their freedom. Instead, they get government to do it for them. No risk on their part, or on the part of their new whipping boys.

Eliminating the notion of "sovereign immunity" puts risk back into government, because right now there is none. Legislators can currently pass a law that tramples on your rights, give police the power to seize your property, and have you arrested and thrown in jail. Even if that law is thrown out in court, legislators can simply rewrite that law, maybe change a few words here and there, and have the whole process repeat itself over and over again. Oh sure you can sue the government, but the legislators themselves can’t be touched. There’s no risk for them if they’re in the wrong. They still have their property, their money, and their freedom, while they conspire to take yours away.

And what is your recourse? Vote them out? No big loss for them, because they still have their pensions. Sue them? If you’re lucky, you’ll get monetary damages, but it will come from the very taxes you pay! No risk off the backs of those in government, because its not their money involved.

But without that shield of "sovereign immunity" to protect them, legislators and other agents of government would have to think twice. If you were a legislator, would you be willing to pass a law that restricts rights and freedoms of the people simply to appease a few dysfunctional moralists, knowing that if you were in the wrong YOU could lose your house, your property, and the shirt off your back? Would it be worth the risk, just for people who risk nothing themselves? I didn’t think so.

Without the instrument of force at their disposal, moralists are nothing more than disgruntled members of society, no better than the rest of us. Without government at their beck and call, moralists will have to do what the rest of us functional human being do when faced with something that disturbs our idealistic view of the world - they’ll have to deal with it.

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